“Decriminalisation of sex work a human rights issue”

by: Rofhiwa Maneta - 12 June 2015

“Decriminalisation of sex work a human rights issue”

In April 2013, 23-year-old Nokuphila Kumalo’s lifeless body was found on Ravencraig Road – a street situated in an industrial part of Woodstock, Cape Town. CCTV footage caught a man approaching Kumalo in the early hours of the morning before beating and kicking her to death. A little under a month later, renowned South African artist and photographer Zwelethu Mthethwa was charged for allegedly murdering her. It would later transpire that Kumalo was a sex-worker.

Last week Mthethwa’s murder trial began at the Western Cape High Court.  While the case remains on the fringes of the media’s radar, it raises questions around the safety of sex workers and has resulted in renewed calls from civil society groups for government to decriminalise sex work. As it stands, the Sexual Offences Act criminalises anyone who “knowingly lives wholly or in part on the earnings of prostitution”.

Decriminalisation is a human rights issue

“This case is one of the many examples of violence exacted against sex workers in South Africa,” says Cherith Stanger. Stanger is an Attorney and Advocacy Manager for Sex Workers Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), a Cape Town-based human rights organisation for sex workers. She believes that current legislation disadvantages sex-workers by shutting them off from labour laws while also reinforcing the stigma around the profession. “If the law says a certain group of people are criminals, it generally affects the way society treats them. Criminalisation reinforces the stigma around sex work and makes sex workers vulnerable to violence,” she continues. Stanger cites Tim Osrin — who assaulted a domestic worker in Cape Town because he thought she was a prostitute — as an example while also relating cases of police brutality that her organisation has dealt with.

“Our argument is that this is a human rights issue. Decriminalising sex work would break the stigma attached to the profession while ensuring sex workers benefit from labour law rights. As things stand, the lived reality of many sex workers in South Africa is problematic. The current laws make them vulnerable to violence,” she concludes

Our silence speaks volumes 

The trial is set to continue on Monday, with the defence currently questioning the authenticity of the CCTV footage that allegedly implicates Mthethwa. If the last two years are anything to go by, the trial will continue undisturbed, generating little coverage from the media and no outrage from the public. In the same year that Kumalo was killed, Oscar Pistorius was also charged with the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. While Reeva Steenkamp’s generated extensive international and local coverage, Kumalo’s death has largely been ignored. An entire channel was dedicated to the Oscar Pistorius trial, the Twittersphere was ablaze with hashtags while the ANC Women’s League expressed their support for Steenkamp. No such thing has happened for Kumalo.

It’s important to remember that Kumalo was not merely a “prostitute”. She was a living, breathing human being. That her murder has generated little outrage is symptomatic of how violence, particularly against black women, has become normative. It also speaks volumes about our attitudes to violence against women who do not fall within our respectability framework. Even in her death, everyone still afforded Steenkamp the dignity of referring to her as a human being. She wasn’t “the model”. She had a name. In the little reporting has taken place, Kumalo has constantly been relegated to a mere detail in a case involving an “acclaimed South African artist”. The “sex worker” murdered on a nondescript street in Cape Town. Thing is, regardless of whatever moralistic judgements we have regarding sex work, she was more than her profession. Her name was Nokuphila Kumalo, and our silence on her murder is an indictment against our society.


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